Crash Course in Historical Truth Telling
Back from South Africa, its Time for Truth & Reconciliation
February is Black History month and- as if on cue- we hear a familiar chorus singing an annual tune: “when are we going to have a White History Month?” What fails to be acknowledged by such insular laments is the fact that all month long, every month, the history of White America- edited for posterity, of course- is taught in our schools, via media, and even in the entertainment sector.
Our collective national memory as well as our current set of racial norms and biases is informed and shaped by textbooks which often tell half-truths and outright lies; egregious errors made in an attempt to whitewash reality. Errors which are only sometimes corrected once finally made plain.
It begs the question- what do we even mean when we say “history” in the United States of America?
I recently traveled to South Africa to study conflict resolution. What I got was a crash course in the art of historical truth-telling. My group met with people from all walks: a freedom fighter and former member of Umkhonto weSizwe who was captured and tortured by the South African government in the 80’s; one of the 17 members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission who served on the Human Rights Violations Committee; a museum tour guide who seemed to long for the “good ol’ days” of apartheid to return; radical preachers who warned us of the dangers of complacency.
Despite the abolition of more than 100 apartheid laws and the democratic process instituted in 1994, this stunningly beautiful country is still working towards socioeconomic justice. They still wrestle with racism. In this way South Africa is remarkably similar to the United States, which, as President Obama said in a recent speech about Black History Month, must continue working to “…address the inequalities and injustices that linger [and] secure our birthright freedoms for all people.”
The striking thing about South Africa is the culture of honesty they’ve cultivated about those past injustices. A too-familiar historical narrative laden with land theft, slavery, and systematic racial oppression is laid bare for everyone to see. It is openly discussed, mourned, critiqued. No one denies apartheid. No one flies an apartheid flag under the auspices of “heritage.” No one denies the experience of Black South Africans, nor do they deny their hard won victories. If they did, from what I can tell, the people of South Africa would not abide it.
Moreover, the history of Black South Africans- so violently suppressed for so long- is being honored in its pain, and in its strength, and in its wisdom.
I don’t intend to glorify the South African process; South Africa, like the United States, is not perfect in its past or current execution of nationhood. My friends who live there would be happy to tell you some truth about the historical roots of the ongoing struggle for justice, and we would look at that truth-telling process and praise it.
Perhaps we should also adopt it.
History, after all, is defined as “a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events.” Doing history more honestly and completely has massively important implications for how we do the Right Now and the What’s Next. Together.
Shouldn’t our knowledge be based in truth? The whole truth? So help us God.
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I thought we had the moment of truth when Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL) attempted to discipline one of its tenured associate professors for wearing a hijab, and writing "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book," she wrote on Facebook, in part, on Dec. 10. "And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God." But not so fast....Read full article »
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February is Black History month and- as if on cue- we hear a familiar chorus singing an annual tune: “when are we going to have a White History Month?” What fails to be acknowledged by such insular laments is the fact that all month long, every month, the history of White America- edited for posterity, of course- is taught in our schools, via media, and even in the entertainment sector. Our history often comes with so many errors and half-truths, and white wash that it begs the question what we mean with we invoke “history."Read full article »